“Nineteen kilometres further inland from Tissa lies the small and remote town of KATARAGAMA, one of the three most venerated religious sites in Sri Lanka (along with Adam’s Peak and the Temple of the Tooth at Kandy), held sacred by Buddhists, Hindus and Muslims alike – even Christians sometimes visit in search of divine assistance. The most important of the town’s various shrines is dedicated to the god Kataragama, a Buddhist-cum-Hindu deity who is believed to reside here.” – Rough Guides
We drove to Kataragama in the late afternoon, crossed the Menik River and walked along the treelined avenue that leads to Kiri Vehera.
Bathing and ritual purification in the Menik River (River of Gems) is a long standing tradition no longer seemed to be observed by many.
Fruit and colourful garlands for the Hindu gods and flowers and incense sticks for the Buddhist places of worship are sold in the kiosks that line the avenue. You are reminded to remove footwear before entering haloed ground.
The origin of this renovated Buddhist Dagoba is disputed but many scholars think it dates from the 3rd century BC. As many Dagobas, it sits on a raised platform. Buddhists always visit Kiri Vehera before making offerings to god Kataragama. Devotees offer flowers, light oil lamps and worship. Some circle the Dagoba carrying Buddhist flags and chanting religious verses with traditional drummers and pipers leading them (see video clip below). Devotees drape the Dagoba with reams of saffron coloured cloth, later used to make robes for monks.
It is a short walk from Kiri Vehera to Kataragama Devale, the small shrine dedicated to Skandia-Kumara or god Kataragama who is supposed to have come from India. Some believe that the god who first resided on a nearby mountain called Vedahitikanda, relocated in or around the 1st century BC to the current shrine. According to Sinhala legends, when Skanda-Kumara moved to Sri Lanka, he asked for refuge from Tamils. They refused, and he came to live with the Sinhalese in Kataragama. As a penance for their refusal, the deity forced Tamils to indulge in body piercing and fire walking in his annual festival. This legend tries to explain the location of the shrine as well as the traditional patterns of worship by Tamils. Another Sinhala legend attests that god Kataragama was the deity worshiped by king Dutugemunu in the 1st century BC, before his war with Chola king Elara, and that Dutugamunu had the shrine erected to Skanda-Kumara at Kataragama after his victory.
As we walked towards the shrine, we saw the magnificent temple tusker, gently swaying and accepting fruit from pilgrims (see video clip below). Its keepers urged pilgrims to walk under the elephants belly. “It will rid you of all ill luck” they said. There were no takers.
Pilgrims were standing in line to enter the shrine for the 7pm offering called puja. Oil lamps were being lit, drums were beating, bells were ringing and food for the Gods was brought in procession with cavadi dancers. The atmosphere was electric. Inside, the shrine was crowded and priests accepted offerings of fruit and money from devotees which they took behind the giant screen on which the God is depicted with six faces and twelve arms, astride a peacock and holding his two spouses. Money is kept but the fruit is cut in half and returned. The priests here are some of the richest in the country.
As we walked back to the coach, a man urged us to stop and accept free food and drink from their charitable organisation which feeds pilgrims to Kataragama every day. “On some days we feed ten thousand pilgrims” he said with a shy smile. He wasn’t boasting. We declined politely, bought packets of tea with coriander from two young girls who were trying to make an honest living and went back to the Lakeside Hotel at Tissa for fish and chips and cold beer.